Sunday, December 21, 2008

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 21 2008

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God." Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.


There’s a popular Christmas song called “Mary Did You Know?” written by Mark Lowry. In the song, Mr. Lowry wonders if Mary knew, when Jesus was a baby, all the things that the child she was holding would do in his lifetime. Did she know that he would walk on water, heal the sick, raise the dead?

I don’t think she did. In today’s reading we hear the angel Gabriel telling Mary that the child she would soon bear would be “holy” and would be called Son of God. He would be given the throne of his ancestor David and reign forever. But there was definitely a lack of specific details, things that would have told Mary more about what was to come. Mary was given information on a “need to know” basis.

And this was definitely a gift. As much as we might like to know the future, if we did know it, we would not act in ways which would bring it about. We would do everything differently.

One of the saddest things I have ever heard was an older woman expressing regret for the path she had chosen in her life. “If I had it all to do over again,” she said, “I would not have gotten married nor had children. I would have pursued my career instead.” This, in spite of the fact that she had more than fifty years of marriage under her belt and had raised two successful children. Yet, apparently if she had known the amount of suffering and unhappiness in store for her within the life she had chosen, she would have chosen differently.

And the sad thing was that chances are that this woman would not have had less sorrow or suffering if she had chosen differently. “In this world you will have trouble.” Jesus said in John 13. We are all bound to have trouble and the woman I am talking about, if she had chosen a different path, would have just had different trouble than she ended up having. It is much like the fable where the people in a village are complaining about their problems and how they wish they didn’t have them. The magical visitor in the story tells the villagers to lay all their problems on the ground in front of them, then invites them to take someone else’s problems instead of their own. The villagers look around, then pick up their own problems again.

It would be nice to know, though, what is going to happen next, wouldn’t it? People today read their horoscopes and consult psychics, all with the hope that they will be able to figure out what is going to happen next. But God has expressly forbidden this, in the book of Deuteronomy, when he says, “You shall follow God with perfect faith [and not] hearken to astrologers and diviners.” (Deuteronomy 18:13-14)

God doesn’t want you peeking into the future for many good reasons. If we knew what the future was, we would act differently than we otherwise would have and we would definitely bolux everything up. This ignorance of the future is a gift to us, just, as I told you in my last sermon, that the ignorance of the day of Christ’s second coming is a gift. If we knew too much about what is to come, we would not act in ways that God wants us to act. We would procrastinate, act to change things to our own advantage and generally, stick a monkey wrench in the plans that God has for us. This is the power of the one of God’s other gifts: the gift of free will. We have the power to change things by the choices we make. It’s a dangerous gift and armed with the knowledge of what the choices we would make will do to the future, we would not have enough wisdom to choose as we should. Therefore, the gift of free will had to be accompanied by the gift of ignorance.

However, if we can’t know everything about what will happen to us, it still would be nice to know a little bit more about what is to come, wouldn’t it? God speaks to many people in biblical history, with angelic visitors as in Mary’s case, and through the prophets. Why doesn’t God do that for everyone?

If you think about all the people who received such announcements, for instance Zachariah in the verses before the ones in today’s reading, or Old Testament folks like Abraham and Sarah when they are told what is going to happen to them, you realize why God isn’t all that forthcoming with specifics. These folks simply did not believe God, did they? They got the word right from the source and they still did not believe. We don’t have the greatest track record for listening to God and believing what he tells us, even when those bringing the news have impeccable credentials. God, as he said in the book of Deuteronomy, is looking for perfect faith. And the Bible is a log book of people who do not have that faith, people who were given many hints, announcements and even explicit plans and directions and disregarded them. Very rarely does God find that perfect faith, people who acquiesce to God’s plans without a murmur or a “Why me?”

But here in our reading we do find that perfect faith: Mary says, “Let it be with me according to your word.” Her only question is not WHY this is happening but HOW it’s going to happen. Mary is one of the very few people God entrusts with such knowledge who simply says, “Yes, I will.” And that makes it clear why she was chosen for such a wonderful gift, yet such a heavy burden. God gave her just enough information to be going on with, without burdening her with the whole knowledge of what was to be. Because if Mary would have known all the wonders that Jesus would perform in his life, she also would have to had known the ignominious death filled with hideous suffering that was also in his future and the anguish she would suffer herself watching him die. It was God’s gift to her, the ignorance of all that was to come.

While we have only gotten the bare bones of the story in Luke’s gospel and we may never know all that Mary knew ahead of time, we can all strive to duplicate that perfect faith that she had. “In this world you will have trouble,” Jesus said in John 13, but went on to say, “But take heart, for I have overcome the world!” Take heart. Have faith. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

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